03.12.12 - Two teams from the EPFL’s School of Computer and Communication Sciences travelled to Benin and Cameroon to teach a programming course. Looking back on a useful and rewarding experience.

The Internet has the potential to make business and administration in Africa more efficient and more transparent. While few people in Africa can afford to buy a computer, many already have a mobile phone and will most likely have a smartphone within a few years’ time. A wide range of opportunities will therefore open up for application developers as more people gain the ability to connect to the Internet.
With this realisation, two groups from the EPFL’s School of Computer and Communication Sciences set off for Cotonou (Benin) and Douala (Cameroon) to teach people there how to programme smartphones. A specialist application called PicsApp, which lets people exchange annotated photos with a group of friends, has been used as an aid for lessons. The application has been used as the basis for teaching modules for Java programming on smartphones and for the creation of web servers. In particular, these modules cover the basics of Java programming and the creation of interfaces on Android smartphones.

Motivated students
Most of the students attending this entirely free training course were in the final year of their master’s degree programme at university or in the third year of their bachelor’s degree programme at a private higher technical institution. Some students were professionals, trainees or employees of a state institution (hospital) or a major telecommunications company. Of the 60 candidates for the course in Cotonou, 43 were selected and 40 received their completion certificates. Of the 43 candidates for the course in Douala, 33 were selected, including 9 women. Having finished their practical exercises and the PicsApp programming project, 28 from this group were awarded their certificates.
Motivated by the rare opportunity of being able to attend these intensive courses, the students proved to be highly committed and diligent, working throughout the afternoon at the laboratory and carrying on with their studies at home until late at night when necessary. Organisational aspects were handled by EPFL lecturer Pierre-Yves Rochat, who also teaches in French-speaking Africa, with the help of his African assistants, Géraud Da-Gbadji in Cotonou and Cédric Lako in Douala. EPFL professor Claude Petitpierre taught the course in Cotonou with assistance from students Oriane Rodriguez, Elodie Triponez and Alexandre Nyemeck. EPFL professor Roger Hersch taught the course in Douala with assistance from students Bruno Didot, Frédéric Sabatier and Alexandre Chappuis. At each location, EPFL students taught on a voluntary basis. Preparation, travel and accommodation expenses were covered by a grant from the EPFL’s Cooperation and Development Center (Professor Jean-Claude Bolay) as well as by income from the licensing of patents and technologies.

Interested in teaching in Africa?
There are plans to organise another summer course in 2013, possibly alongside basic e-learning (massive open online courses). In addition, EPFL lecturer René Beuchat will be giving an intensive VHDL circuit design course at the Ecole Polytechnique d’Abomey-Calavi (EPAC) in Cotonou in February 2013. Other sessions will probably also be developed. Contacts have been established with the heads of technology faculties at the main universities and (private) higher technical institutions in the regions of Cotonou (Benin) and Douala (Cameroon). One higher technical institution in Douala has shown particular interest in two-week block courses in computer science and signal processing.
“Teaching in this environment is doubly satisfying,” states Professor Roger D Hersch enthusiastically. “First of all, the students are extremely motivated. The training and certificate that they receive at the end greatly increases their chances of finding a job or becoming self-employed. Secondly, the price of smartphones is going down all the time, whereas computers remain out of reach. Teaching people in Africa how to programme smartphones is a way of helping them to gain access the Internet.”

Any students, assistants, researchers or professors interested in the 2013 summer course or in teaching a block course may now contact Professor Roger D. Hersch.